BANGUI, Central African Republic — There was a time when anything was possible in this remote country in the heart of Africa, if only Jean-Bedel Bokassa wanted it. When he wanted all women freed from prison on Mother's Day in 1971, it was done. Then he wanted all prisoners convicted of crimes against women executed. Done.
Over the years, he lusted for other men's wives, and invariably got what he wanted--even if, as happened at least once, it was over the husband's dead body. It was said that he dealt with political prisoners in his palace courtyard by sending them either to the lions' den or the crocodile pond, depending on his whim.
When Bokassa wanted to be an emperor, he made his dream come true one Sunday afternoon in 1977 with a diamond-studded, $10-million coronation in his impoverished country--already renamed the Central African Empire. Then he ordered his subjects to hail him "from six steps away while making a slight forward indication of the head."
These days, it is the ex-emperor who bows respectfully, from about six paces away, to three red-robed judges and a jury of six fellow citizens of the Central African Republic. For three months he has been on trial in a hot courtroom here, sitting with his shoulders hunched humbly forward in a tailored, dark wool suit, the jacket always buttoned. He sports a gray-flecked beard and an attentive, occasionally bewildered look on his face.
Bokassa, 66, for 14 years one of independent Africa's most brutal and bizarre dictators, surprised nearly everyone here when he showed up at the airport in Bangui last October, ending seven years of exile. Although he had been tried and sentenced to death in his absence here in 1980, Bokassa was said to have thought the worst that could happen to him was to be banished to his home village.
Arrested on Arrival
But the days when Jean-Bedel Bokassa could have his way in the Central African Republic had long passed. He was arrested upon arrival, and President Andre Kolingba ordered a new trial so that "the past can be buried forever." In the process, the wide-open proceedings also have become an unusual public lesson in the potential wickedness of unrestrained power.
Bokassa is charged with, among other things, murdering some of his army officers, poisoning his grandchild, hiding corpses, cannibalism and supervising an operation in which at least 50 schoolchildren were killed in the streets and in Bangui's Ngaragba Prison for protesting the mandatory wearing of uniforms to classes.
Since December, the trial, broadcast live on radio and replayed nightly on television, has held hundreds of thousands of Central Africans so spellbound that offices in the capital virtually ceased to function. The problem was so serious that the government stepped in a few weeks ago and moved the trial to afternoons, beginning at 1:30, after most offices and banks have closed for the day.
Spectators now crowd into the courtroom, sitting on yellow plastic folding chairs arranged in concentric half-circles on risers, facing the judge and jury. Bokassa sits in front of his attorneys' table, flanked by three uniformed presidential security guards in red berets. He occasionally raises his right hand in front of him, with his head bowed, seeking permission to speak. Witnesses refer to him simply as "the accused."
'My Brain Is Very Small'
When the judge scolded him for making contradictory remarks recently, Bokassa pleaded: "Your honor, my brain is very small. It would be very hard for any Central African or anyone to be in my shoes right now and remember everything. But I am here. I am not running away from my responsibility."
Prosecutor Gabriel M'bodou, a tall man with a snarling, lion-like face, scoffed at Bokassa's appeal for sympathy.
"He's trying to make us think he's not right in the mind," M'bodou said loudly. "He's pretending he has some mental problems."
Bokassa seems a rather innocuous figure these days. His right foot is swollen with gout, and his high blood pressure must be kept in check with medication. But Central Africans remember their fears during Bokassa's capricious rule, their relatives who were picked up and never seen again, their government paychecks that came late or not at all because Bokassa was paying for such things as his coronation. They still despise him for the ugly worldwide reputation that his actions brought on the country.
Emperor Bokassa I was overthrown in a bloodless coup staged by French troops in September, 1979, after reports by Amnesty International and other human rights groups that palace soldiers and perhaps Bokassa himself had killed children protesting the emperor's order that they all buy $25 uniforms bearing Bokassa's picture from a factory that Bokassa owned.
Exile in France